News
03.01.2010
Green Depot
Selldorf designs sustainable recycling facility in Brooklyn
Annabelle Selldorf is designing a rather uncharacteristic building in Brooklyn, though the designer believes the recycling center is a natural fit for her practice.
Courtesy Selldorf Architects

New York architect Annabelle Selldorf is known for stylish Soho apartments and restrained Chelsea galleries, but her latest project is quite the departure, and not simply because it’s located in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. Her firm, Selldorf Architects, has designed a recycling center for Sims Metal Management, a 24-hour facility that will process 600 tons of recyclables each day from the five boroughs.

Designing an industrial building is unusual enough, but the architects were also working within a relatively tight budget of $89 million. That meant the center would have to be built using pre-engineered structures, limiting the flexibility of the design. Yet Selldorf’s team found the challenge every bit as engaging as a high-end loft or a Hamptons villa.

“In a funny way, it’s not that different,” Selldorf said during a telephone interview from Europe, where she is working on a gallery. “People tend to think we do very elaborate, refined work, but the issues really are the same, respecting the program and the budget."

A site plan for the project shows the difficult choreography in creating circulation for the competing needs of a facility that is both industrial and educational. (Click to zoom)

Tom Outerbridge, general manager for Sims’ municipal recycling division, said the company wanted a marquee facility because of its prominence on the water— it is located on a pier at the South Brooklyn Marine Terminal, adjacent to 30th Street—and its importance to the city’s sustainability efforts. Sims selected Selldorf Architects because of what Outerbridge characterized as the firm’s “classic” aesthetic. “There were a lot of very interesting ideas, but how’s that going to play 20 years from now?” Outerbridge said. “Selldorf’s approach is very simple and clean.”

Through a number of subtle yet creative maneuvers, the designers were able to achieve a unique, almost customized appearance for the project without straying far from the basic units they had been given to work with. “As far as the buildings go, we want to express the function of the buildings and let the forms speak for themselves,” said Sara Lopergolo, the principal-in-charge at Selldorf. “We edit selectively and push the detailing where we can.”

Organizing the 11.5-acre site was a challenge, since barges bring in most of the recyclables—with trucks serving parts of Brooklyn and Queens—while the processed materials are removed by trucks and, eventually, rail cars. The solution was a series of linked structures that begin with the so-called tipping building, where trucks and barges bring in materials under a roof that extends from the upland side out over the water. The processing building interlocks with the tipping building and links to a bale building, where recyclables are stored for removal. An adjacent administrative and educational building is connected to the main facility by a third-floor skybridge.

Most recyclables will be brought in by barge and deposited in the tipping building, a simple pre-engineered building that has had its structure exposed, one of many decisions made by selldorf to create a unique look.

To add character to the structures, designers peeled back the walls of the tipping building to expose the structure within, which was painted a glossy black. The same corrugated metal panels are used on the processing and baling buildings, but the ripples run vertically on the former and horizontally on the latter, communicating that the buildings have separate functions. The administrative building mirrors a 4-foot concrete band around the base of the main building, and uses the same corrugated metal above, along with translucent fiberglass panels.

Encircling all this is 3.5 acres of green space. This serves a practical purpose, because Sims hopes to expand operations at the facility some day on a plot east of the processing building. But Sims and the city, mindful of the symbolism of the recycling center, are also striving for a sustainable operation. Thus, hardy native plants will be used to help retain stormwater. “Basically, we’ve created a park and carved out a space for recycling,” Lopergolo said.

Sims also felt strongly about incorporating solar power into the project. To accommodate the rooftop panels, designers realized that by using 70-foot columns on the upland side of the tipping building, compared to the 50-foot columns on the water side, they could achieve the necessary pitch on the 6,000-square-foot roof for an ample solar array. The inclusion of a windmill is also under study, and there has even been talk of using goats to maintain lawns instead of mowers.

A sky bridge connects the processing building with the administrative building, so students may view the recycling processing without getting in the way. The canted roof of the tipping building accommodates a solar array.

Because the project is located on public land, it is subject to review by the Public Design Commission, which gave preliminary approval on February 1. Commissioners were impressed by how much care had been put into what could have been a standard industrial building. “The design is very elegant and restrained,” Guy Nordenson, an engineer who serves on the commission, wrote in an email. “That is testimony to Selldorf and her team’s design and detailing skill and also to the city’s strong support for design excellence across the board.”

Selldorf admits the project was a big step for her firm, particularly in these difficult times for the design industry. “We’ve always tried to do a wide range of projects, but this is really important to me,” she said. “Like anyone, we struggle, but I would have wanted this job under any circumstances because of what it means for the city.”

Matt Chaban